Last week, I went on what has now turned into an annual trip to catch several stages of the Giro d’Italia – and it’s the type of trip that any cycling fan can do, given a bit of research and preparation, while also discovering some new places, many of which you might never have considered visiting were it not for the race.
Here’s some tips on how to find and plan your own bespoke Grand Tour trip, and while the examples are largely based on Italy, given that the Giro is the race I return to again and again, they largely apply equally to the Tour de France and the Vuelta, as well as some of the week-long stage races that take place on the Continent each year,.
But they equally apply also to those times of the year when there are several one-day races in a particular area – Flanders for the Spring Classics, for example, or the week before Il Lombardia when the Italian Lakes play host to races including the Tre Valli Varesine – won last year by Tadej Pogačar, and the kind of event where you can get close to the riders in a way that you can no longer do at the biggest races.
One consideration is that given its status as the biggest race in the world, the Tour de France does put pressure on accommodation and other amenities that doesn’t happen at other races. Also, the shape of Italy, with railway lines running along the coast, as well as criss-crossing the country, perhaps gives more opportunities to build an itinerary compared to France.
> Want to catch all the unmissable action from the Giro d'Italia? Watch live racing on demand with GCN+
I should also mention that this guide isn’t aimed at those of you for whom a trip to a race perhaps involves riding up a col the day before a Tour de France stage, pitching a tent and waiting for the race to arrive; it’s more about savouring the landscapes, the cities and the food of the towns and cities on the route, and soaking up the atmosphere.
And while this advice could equally apply to anyone who wanted to follow the race by car, whether your own, or a hire-vehicle picked up in-country, as a non-driver my default option is to travel by train. True, that does limit chances to go a bit off-piste, or to catch the race in places not served by the railways, and yes, you are beholden to train timetables.
But on the other hand, I think it relieves a lot of pressure in terms of having to find alternative routes to roads that may be closed, or parking up in cities where restrictions will be in place during the visit of the race, which can also lead to getting stuck in traffic jams.
Trains on the continent are also cheap and comfortable, with fast connections between the main cities – and all at a price that comes in well below what you’d expect to pay for similar journeys in the UK, especially when booked in advance, and with the added bonus that on high-speed trains, you can upgrade at the time of booking to premium or business class for a few euro more.
Finally, for some of you more seasoned travellers out there, some of the advice below will seem second-nature – but believe me, even as someone who first started travelling by train on the Continent with the help of an Interrail pass more than 30 years ago now, I still encounter pitfalls that a bit of better preparation would have avoided.
It’s never too early to start planning
In the weeks leading up to the Christmas season each year, the official routes of the following season’s Grand Tours are announced. Some details, of course, will already have been made public, such as the cities or regions hosting the Tour de France Grand Depart, or the Giro d’Italia’s Grande Partenza.
It’s the first opportunity to look at the entire route and start drawing up a plan, and while you may not have the full routes of each stage, such as details of the towns the race passes through on the day, you will at least know where it starts and finishes.
What to look for
There’s two types of stage clusters I’d be looking at when planning where I’d like to spend a few days on the race.
One is where the routes on successive days largely follow the train lines. So on last year’s Giro, where I’d caught the Naples stage on the Saturday (and, the following day, the Napoli v Genoa match at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona) I headed north east via Rome to pick up the race again for the stage finish in Jesi on the Tuesday after the first rest day.
The following day, the stage ran along the Via Emilia from Santarcangelo di Romagna, near Rimini, to Reggio Emilia – enabling me to catch the start, the finish and watch the race go through Bologna on the way while changing trains there.
Thursday’s stage started half an hour away in Parma, where I spent the night, up early to enjoy the buzz of the start village and watch the riders set off, before heading to the finish in Genoa.
I got there in time for the finish despite it being one of the 20 fastest stages in the history of the race and – irony of ironies – a half-hour delay outside the port city to allow the official Giro d’Italia train to move ahead of us on the line.
The bonus was that while stuck at that red signal, I got a terrific view of the race convoy, followed by the riders, passing by on a nearby road, and the train I was stuck on even made an appearance on the livestream I was watching on my phone.
A similar sequence of stages that follows a main rail route can often be found on the Tour de France, by the way, for example in many years you’ll find it taking in cities such as Marseilles, Nîmes, Montpellier and Carcassonne – all linked by fast train services.
Looping the loop
For this year, the stages I targeted weren’t in a straight line, however – the first two of the three being more or less circular.
Stage 5, in Campania, went from Altripalda to Salerno; it’s less than an hour by bus between the two locations, meaning I could catch the start, then return to Salerno, where I was staying, in plenty of time to watch Mark Cavendish slide across the line.
Picture: (Zac Williams/SWpix.com)
The following day, an early start got me to Naples in time for the build-up, then shortly before the start I jumped on a train to Pompei to catch the race going through there at lunchtime before heading back into the city to watch the finish.
Staying in Caserta that night, I was just 10 minutes or so by train from Capua and the start of Stage 7, some rare dry weather enabling me to enjoy the carnival atmosphere and, as the rain began, watch the riders roll out – just in time for me to find somewhere for a nice lunch and watch the stage to the Gran Sasso on TV.
Once the detailed routes of the stages are out, by the way, it’s also worth identifying which ones have a circuit involved – for example, on the Naples stage last year, I headed an hour out of the city by train to a place called Torregaveta, on the circuit around Monte Procida that was ridden four times – giving plenty of opportunity to watch the race pass by, then find a bar to watch the finish on TV once the peloton headed back into the city.
Talking of maximising spectating opportunities, it's also well worth considering places hosting time trial stages, of course – plenty of time there for a leisurely lunch outside a restaurant on the route, perhaps, before maybe walking up the course to catch the later starters.
Where to stay
This will depend, to a large extent, on which stages you are following. Point-to-point means a different hotel each night, while something like the cluster of stages in and around Naples last week means there’s an opportunity to spend a few nights in the same place.
My personal preference is to be somewhere within easy reach of the following day’s stage start, rather than choosing a hotel or apartment close to the finish, though if you are watching the end of a stage then heading off to be close to where racing resumes the following day, make sure that the place you have booked has a late enough check-in to enable you to get there in time.
One of the reasons for that is the vibe surrounding the stage start, where there is always plenty to explore – the village, with stalls staffed by race sponsors often giving away freebies, the excited groups of schoolkids given the morning off lessons to enjoy watching the race, local bands and the like providing a musical accompaniment, the shops and bars dressed up for the race.
You may also find special exhibitions or displays of vintage bikes (for which it is worth checking the website of the local council or tourist board), and a general feel-good vibe, especially in smaller places that the race may not visit again for years.
The finish area, by contrast, is typically more crowded, more chaotic, and unless you get there early to grab a good spot, you risk being able to see very little of the race at all. Better to walk back down the course away from the finish line and find somewhere beyond the flamme rouge, perhaps on a corner, and with a bar with a TV where you can dash inside to watch the end of the stage once the riders have flashed by.
Whichever country you’re heading to, the Man In Seat 61 is the go-to resource for everything to do with train travel on the Continent, full of advice about including the types of train and tickets available, how to book, and the layout of and facilities at principal stations.
Especially if you’re going to France or the Low Countries, you may find it easier and more cost-effective to buy an Interrail pass, allowing a set number of days’ travel on the Continent over a month, and also including travel to stations in Great Britain to London and then on the Eurostar for crossing the Channel. Be aware that once there, supplements may apply for high-speed trains.
Where the places you are visiting are linked by high-speed trains – the TGV in France, or the Frecciarossa in Italy, for example – the earlier you book, the bigger the savings you’ll make, and you’ll also have more opportunities to upgrade to a premium ticket, definitely something I would recommend.
Also, download the local train operator’s app, for example SNCF or Trenitalia, which will enable you to check timings and buy tickets for local trains, as well as learning about potential delays.
Travel as light as you can
Well, within reason. Clearly, you don’t want to be lugging a suitcase around all over the place, not least because you’ll also need to keep an eye on it. Best leave it at the place you stayed the previous night, if that’s nearby, or at your next overnight stop, if practical – but if that’s not possible, there’s an app I use called Bounce which has growing numbers of places such as hotels and shops in bigger towns and cities across the Continent where you can leave your bag for a few hours for €5 or so.
By the way, while I try to stay as close to a station as I can, especially if I need to get up early to go to the start of a stage, it is a fact of travel that it will always seem twice as far away from your accommodation than seemed the case the previous evening, or the train you want will be on some platform far from the entrance, so always factor in plenty of time to catch it. If you are early, you can always grab a coffee, better that than wait hours for the next service.
In these post-Brexit times, with some very rare exceptions your data allowance is not going to go far, with Three for example capping usage in the EU at a miserly 10GB, so consider buying a local SIM – in Italy, for example, operator Wind Tre which has branches in all large towns and cities, will sell one to tourists that provides unlimited data for 30 days at €25. Don’t worry, your WhatsApp will still work on your normal number, but be sure to keep your UK SIM safe.
You’ll also want to download the app of the host broadcaster, whether that be France Televisions, RAI, TVE, etc, where you’ll be able to stream wall-to-wall coverage of the race. If you’re signed up to GCN, that will work too, wherever you are – though for English commentary, you may have to go through a VPN, such as the Express VPN app.
Clearly you will have charged your phone the night before heading out, but take it from me, the number of pictures and videos you will be taking plus all that streaming and checking up on the race quickly takes its toll on the battery, so pack a powerbank too – and ensure that gets topped up regularly during your stay, too.
Go prepared for the weather
I perhaps would not have written this paragraph this time last year, but given what we’ve seen in Italy this past week or so, go prepared for all conditions. I packed a Rapha lightweight commuter jacket (that packs into a pocket and provides a warm layer for the evening when the temperature cools) as well as a standard commuter jacket from the brand – which saved me more than once from an absolute soaking. I do wish I’d packed a collapsible umbrella though.
Above all, have fun
Hopefully the above will give you some useful pointers and also encourage you to design your own mini-break and go enjoy some of the sport’s biggest events in person, in new surroundings – it’s something I would wholeheartedly recommend.
Of course, much like the shifting routes of the Grand Tours each year, nothing is set in stone, and it could be that you have a couple of days on the race, a couple of days off, then pick it up again, depending how the parcours works out.
And if that is the case, whether you’re in France, Italy, Spain, or somewhere else, that also gives you the chance to explore towns and cities further, or to even pick up a hire bike – it doesn’t even need to be something flash – and go for a ride along the coast or in the countryside, perhaps on a dedicated off-road tourist route, which are becoming increasingly common across the Continent.
Above all, have fun – it’s a great experience to rub shoulders with locals and with fans from all over the world, to savour new places and their cuisines, and to see some top-notch bike racing
yeah, because what kind of a mother would risk a driving licence infraction whilst her child's life is at stake?
That would certainly be a good idea. It seems pretty crazy that we're saying we are committed to change yet still baking in motor vehicle...
Also, if you look on Michelin's website, they do not recommend using their 25s or 28s on 21mm internal rims (pretty common nowadays). I assume for...
How someone else rides their bike has got f'k all to do with me unless they are an actual acquaintence of mine and riding with me. Even then, they...
Thanks. You're right, it really brings it home and then some idiot spouts off all that nonsense and it just rubs salt in the wound.
pay up, whingers ...
Speedrockers for me and my pals on 42's
This is another of those "difference between Britain and America" things, isn't it?
I reckon they swerved to avoid the hi-viz cones